3-3 Rokuta was taken deep within the palace, down to a room far below the summit. Somewhere around the base of Rou’un Mountain, a door opened to reveal a woman standing on the other side of the iron bars.
Ribi was the Imperial Viceroy sent to Gen Province. The viceroy served in a supervisory capacity to the province lord and while answering directly to the emperor. With the authority of the province lord and the prime minister frozen, the viceroy held the actual reins of power as the acting governor general.
With the exception of Sei Province, where Rokuta also served as the province lord, the viceroys and their staffs had been dispatched to the eight other provinces. Along with Itan, Shukou, Seishou and their staffs, they constituted the core of Shouryuu’s support amongst his less loyal retainers.
The irons bars were raised. Kouya escorted Rokuta into the room.
Rokuta sighed. “So you’ve locked up Ribi too. Shouryuu’s dogs have been shown to their kennels.”
“The Taiho too.”
“Well, we’ll just have to put up with it. Any which way you look at it, Shouryuu is finally getting his comeuppance.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“When you take nothing serious, don’t be surprised when the serious stuff takes a bite out of you.”
Ribi said to Kouya, “You had better treat the Taiho with kid gloves.”
Kouya grinned. “Of course. Wouldn’t harm a hair on his head. But for now, Rokuta, you’ll have to remain our prisoner.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured that out.”
Kouya motioned him to his side. Rokuta complied. Kouya took a spool of red thread and a white stone from his pocket. He pressed the white stone against Rokuta’s forehead.
Rokuta flinched. “Stop that.”
“Stand still. Remember the child.”
Rokuta glanced at the youma squatting at the entrance to the dungeon. The youma opened its mouth in a taunting manner, revealing a small arm.
“I’m not resisting. I just don’t care for what you’re doing.”
“This is because of the horn in your forehead. It must be bound and sealed. Your shirei would otherwise take advantage of the slightest gap in our defenses.”
Rokuta was not, by nature, a human being. Exercising his will, he could return to his native form, that of a kirin, a Chinese unicorn. As a kirin, he sported a single horn in the middle of his forehead, said to be the wellspring of his powers. In human form, having that spot touched was quite unpleasant.
Binding the horn bound the kirin’s powers, particularly when it came to summoning and commanding his shirei.
“That is really disagreeable. Not simply unpleasant, you know. Rather repulsive.”
“Youma have a similar sort of hypersensitivity.”
Rokuta reluctantly raised his head. That spot was like an exposed raw nerve, so sensitive as to be painful to the touch. When the cool stone and thread pressed against it, he had to martial all his self-control to repress the innate reflex to fight or flight.
“That hurts. It’s making me sick to my stomach.”
“You’ll just have to put up with it.”
The thread was wrapped around the stone to hold it in place. Having secured it around Rokuta’s head, he breathed an incantation onto the knot. The pain suddenly subsided, replace by a hollow sensation inside Rokuta’s body.
“No. But it feels funny.”
“You won’t be able to summon your shirei or turn back into a kirin, meaning you can’t fly. Try not to get stuck on any lofty peaks.”
Kouya smiled and turned to the youma. With a light tap, the beak opened. The baby was lying on the red tongue. Kouya twined the red thread around the child’s neck and tied it with a loose knot. With another incantation, the excess thread fell away.
“It’s called a red line. Cut your threat and this one decapitates the child.”
“Do you have to go that far? I told you, I’m not going to run away.”
“And I told you: for the time being, you are our prisoner and must be treated as such.” He nodded at Ribi. “It’s also linked to hers.”
Rokuta looked Ribi. A similar white stone was fastened to her head with a length of red string. Government bureaucrats of her rank were listened on the Registry of Wizards and so didn’t age. On becoming a wizard, a person’s third eye opened, invisible to the outside world but still constituting a kind of organ.
When it was blocked so were any magical powers associated with it, just like Rokuta’s horn.
“Even if she cuts her own thread, the one around the child’s neck will decapitate her. Cut the child’s thread, and the same thing will happen to her. Same with Rokuta’s thread. Granted, unlike that of an ordinary wizard, it probably wouldn’t sever a kirin’s head. But I’m sure it would prove quite painful— at the very least cut through the horn.”
“There are threads strung outside your cell that will break if you try to leave.”
“In which case, bad things would happen to Ribi and the child.”
“And when this is all over, you’re going to return the child?”
“You’re very informed about kirin.” The average person didn’t know about the kirin’s horn.
“Thanks to ROKUTA—the big guy, I mean. It turns out that youma resemble the divine beasts in more ways that you’d suspect.”
“My shirei have always kept such knowledge to themselves.”
“And so has the big guy. But when you keep close company with a youma, all sorts of interesting things rub off on you.”
Kouya took the child and passed it to Ribi. “I’ll leave her in your care. See to his needs. I’ll make sure you are provided with the necessities.”
“You are a monster,” Ribi spat out.
Kouya only smiled. “If there’s anything else you need, please let me know.”
Ribi didn’t reply, only glared back at him, her eyes filled with venom. Kouya merely shrugged it off and looked at Rokuta.
“Ribi and I will behave ourselves. And can I count on your company from time to time?”
“Naturally. I’ll be down to check up on you.”
Rokuta nodded. “I’d rather we’d met under different circumstances.”
“That makes two of us, Rokuta.”